Saturday, July 20

Northanger Abbey – Octagon Theatre, Bolton

The first months of 2024 have brought a plethora of fresh writing to our region and following hot on the heels of new works by Jim Cartwright, Emma Rice and Phoebe Eclair-Powell comes an absolute gem by a little known writer from Hampshire called Jane Austen… Of course, we know that Northanger Abbey was published over two centuries ago, and Austen is so famous that she adorns every ten pound note in England, but this radical and stylised adaptation from Zoe Cooper allows us to see the story as almost freshly minted, the result is a startlingly fresh and inventive take on the mores of Regency England.

Subverting Austen’s own omniscient narrator, we hear the story from the perspective of Cath (Rebecca Banatvala), reenacting her life and recent adventures with Iz (AK Golding) and Hen (Sam Newton) directly to the audience. Cath is a romantic heroine in her own mind, prone to flights of fancy and desires her story to be passionate, enchanting and idyllic, marrying Henry Tilney and living happily ever after. However, Iz offers an alternative view of events, queering the narrative to develop the relationship between the two young women as a new love story sitting within the existing structure.

Zoe Cooper clearly adores Austen and knows her work intimately, the assimilation of her own writing with the language of the original novel is so skilful that it is often difficult to differentiate the two. Even in this first novel – although published posthumously – Austen skilfully skewers the hypocrisy of a society where status and the impression of prosperity are everything, subtle graduations of social scale meaning the difference between happy marriage and perpetual spinsterhood. What Cooper adds to this original sense is a modern sensibility, how an outsider character like Cath would feel ‘othered’ in such a society and may well have explored her romanticism through her sexuality as well as in challenging societal norms. Giving Cath and Iz a love story is a bold reimagining and offers the opportunity of a very different happy ending; the view subverts the novel, the possible truth behind Cath’s idealised version of events peeping out from behind the narrative she keeps attempting to impose.

It was not a complete success, Cooper resorts too often to glib innuendo; the bawdy delivery of an early line in the book where Cath is ‘longing for balls’, elicited little response from the largely supine press night audience and the direct steal from ‘Hamlet’ of the famous ‘country matters’ double entendre fared little better. There was a palpable disconnect with the audience, their expectations were clearly of a more traditional interpretation and the lack of interaction – necessary in this production -made the atmosphere flat throughout. This was exacerbated by a sound design that meant chunks of the dialogue were often inaudible from the Octagon stage and prevented original and new language from sparkling as written. The choreography also felt stilted and failed to replicate the successful innovation of the NT ‘Jane Eyre’, from which it had clearly taken its inspiration.

From a performance perspective, Banatvala was spirited as Cath, bringing a tomboyish energy that brought to mind Jo March in ‘Little Women’ and was faithful to the spirit of Austen’s character. Sam Newton had an eclectic series of roles culminating in a very funny Eleanor Tilney channelling Mrs Danvers, the entire androgynous gothic pastiche of the second act suiting him far better than his earlier roistering portrayals. Indeed, the broad comedy and ‘fringe’ styling was at odds with the delicate writing of Cooper and often threatened to overwhelm and dilute the strong message that this adaptation seeks to impart. It was left to AK Golding to redress the balance with her delicate portrayal of Iz, constantly imploring Cath to honestly relate her feelings to the audience, giving the performance style and substance.

Overall, an intriguing adaptation which explores the power of storytelling and representation, bringing a new perspective to love, friendship and identity and told with wit and some style.

Playing until 23rd March,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 5th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.